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Jamari Wheeler Continuing To Set The Tone For Penn State Hoops

Penn State basketball is playing some of its best basketball of the season so far, winning four straight games after a three-game losing streak earlier in January to vault back into the national polls. The Nittany Lions are up to No. 22 in the AP Poll, No. 20 in the Coaches’ Poll, and are rated No. 16 according to KenPom.

One key reason for the recent winning streak is Penn State’s stellar defense. The Nittany Lions have allowed just 63 points per game during the winning streak, with a large chunk of the points in both the Ohio State and Nebraska victories coming late in garbage time.

The driving force behind the Nittany Lions’ stout defense is undoubtedly junior point guard Jamari Wheeler. The Florida native leads the Big Ten with 1.8 steals per game this season, but Penn State head coach Pat Chambers thinks his influence has been stronger than ever over the past two weeks.

“I think he’s playing some of his best basketball, particularly in the last two games, with Phinisee from Indiana (0-6, two turnovers) and Cam Mack from Nebraska (0-6, three turnovers),” Chambers said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “I thought he set the tone for us and for the game. His defense, his energy, his communication level, his toughness. Our pace on offense is because of him.

During the four-game winning streak, Wheeler has averaged three points, 3.5 assists, three rebounds, 2.3 steals on 45.5 percent shooting over 26 minutes per game. While he might not score often, he rarely takes bad shots, all while assuming the facilitator role on offense that Penn State needs. He’s fulfilled a goal of his that he discussed at media day in the fall: to improve his change of pace as the team’s primary ball-handler.

“My freshman year and even as a sophomore, I was just so used to being faster than guys and going at one all-out speed,” Wheeler said in October. “I’m just trying to get smarter with my changes in pace to be more effective. You can’t go fast all the time.”

Defensively, Wheeler is an absolute pest. Chambers will sometimes instruct him to press opposing ball-handlers all the way up the floor on his own, and his quickness and work ethic are often on display as he zips around the three-point arc for entire 30 second possessions. He’s a crucial piece to the ‘defense-first’ identity that Chambers has tried to instill throughout his tenure in Happy Valley.

“Everybody wants to tell you what he can’t do, but I think his impact on the game is critical for our success,” Chambers said after last Wednesday’s win over Indiana. “I mean he played as tough as you can as far as a point guard for Penn State is concerned.”

Wheeler has certainly assumed the defensive stopper role that was previously held by Josh Reaves. The guard not only embraced the challenge of filling Reaves’s shoes — he didn’t bat an eye.

“I feel like I’m the best defensive guard in the Big Ten,” Wheeler said. “Plus we add Izaiah [Brockington], who is a lot like Josh, he’s a freak athlete. So I feel like we still have the same backcourt defensively.”

Breaking down opposing guards’ play during Penn State’s last four wins, the impact of the team defense that Wheeler mentioned is blatantly obvious. Ohio State’s starting backcourt shot 4-13 from the field (30.7 percent), Michigan’s guards shot 13-44 (29.5 percent), Indiana’s backcourt made just 1-13 attempts (7.6 percent), and Nebraska’s perimeter starters finished 10-28 (35.7 percent).

That’s a combined 28-108 mark, or an abysmal 25.9 percent, from the field. Those 10 starting guards recorded just 26 assists while committing 22 turnovers over those four games. Wheeler might not be forcing each individual miss or turnover, but his impact is the heartbeat behind Penn State’s staunch defense.

“He’s a dog. That’s what he does,” Curtis Jones Jr. said after the Indiana game. “Always being consistent on defense, that’s something that Jamari always does. So, I think that helps us a lot when we’re not making shots, being able to lock down and not allow them to score either.” 

No. 22 Penn State faces one of its toughest challenges of the season Tuesday, as the Nittany Lions head to East Lansing to face off with No. 16 Michigan State. That game will tip off at 8 p.m., and you can watch it on BTN.

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About the Author

Mitch Stewart

Mitch is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism from Roanoke, Virginia. In addition to his role with Onward State, Mitch talks about all the #sprots on Penn State's CommRadio. To contact Mitch, feel free to send him an e-mail at [email protected], and if you really don't value your social media accounts, follow him as he yells on Twitter about Penn State basketball @mitchystew.

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